19 year old Dipali dreams of several things – becoming a police officer, completing her education, finding a job, but most importantly for us, about ensuring that every adolescent girl breaks her silence around menstruation. For the last two years, Dipali has been campaigning for Menstrual Hygiene Management and she is especially keen on working with girls who have dropped out of school.
Dipali Tarvi lives with her mother, father and four sisters in Sukhsal, Vikramgad, Palghar. She’s pursuing her first year of college in Vikramgad. Her parents are humble farmers. Palghar simultaneously experiences torrential rains in the monsoons and severe drinking water scarcity otherwise. Dipali’s village is an Adivasi Pada, with the presence of Mahadeo Koli Adivasis, Kokna Adivasis, and Warli Adivasis. Beautiful Warli paintings line the streets and houses in the village.
Dipali’s engagement with Menstrual Hygiene Management started in 2018 on the day when she was invited for a Demo session in the local Zilla Parishad school, opposite her house. Manjusha Someone, a community mobilizer from Sacred, was convening the session. Sacred, an Ahmednagar based NGO, works with the local community for health and hygiene. Manjusha addressed the adolescent girls and talked about periods, sanitary napkins, menstrual blood and taboos very openly and lucidly. Dipali was hooked.
“Imagine, as a young child, you’re carrying on with your routine of helping your mother, going to school and the temple, playing and talking to your friends. Suddenly, one day you start bleeding. Out of the blue your mother tells you very strictly, ‘don’t touch food, don’t go to the pooja room, don’t eat a pickle, don’t touch anyone, don’t touch the water, don’t talk to boys’. It’s very disturbing. As a child, I questioned whether I had sinned, whether I’d done something wrong. I felt a lot of shame, in a way.’ Dipali shares. Manjusha adds, “It’s incidents like these that really undermine young girls’ confidence and self-respect. They internalize the discrimination. Because no one asks their brother to not touch, or not enter.” Dipali wanted to ensure no girl ever goes through this isolation again.
She approached Manjusha and asked her whether she could also join her mission. She was especially concerned about girls in her village who had to drop out of school to get married or to work. Manjusha was delighted to have an enthusiastically. Dipali’s mission started from home. She asked her mother whether she would want to use a sanitary pad. Dipali’s mother was hesitant. “We use cloth and then because of the taboo around periods, we dry it in a dark room and not in the sun. The cloth remains damp and may develop mold. If we keep using the same damp cloth, it exposes us to infections and rashes. Would you try the pad?”, she asked her mother. Her mother conceded and today, everyone at home, including her two other sisters, has switched to sanitary napkins.
I started talking to girls in my neighborhood and my college. I talk about good menstruation practices such as cleaning hands before and after using the pad, changing them after every four hours, eating well, taking rest. Girls were willing to listen because pads are softer. They don’t irritate the sensitive areas. They can be easily incinerated or buried after use. It’s a more hassle-free way to go through their period.”
How difficult is it to access pads, one wonders. Dipali says the closest store is about 5 kilometers away. Since I go to college, the women in my village ask me to purchase it for them. I’m always happy to do that. Interestingly, Dipali’s father buys sanitary napkins for her whole family. “My father was the most awkward when I started speaking about menstruation openly. But he’s a changed man now. By talking over and over again, he’s got used to the idea of periods. Today, I can unhesitatingly tell him that I’m on my period and can’t fill water. He’s sympathetic and asks me whether he can take me to a doctor if required. My mother tells him, it’s only natural! Don’t fuss! I feel like I can share my feelings freely with him.” Dipali intends to work with boys and men in her village to ensure they’re also scientifically informed and sensitive to women’s conditions during periods.
It takes sustained efforts and resilience to change age-old beliefs. Dipali shares, “Periods are an indicator of women’s health. They can’t be used to shame us. We should openly talk about it. It’s also a question of money and work. Women who sell flowers outside temples, can’t miss four to five days of work because of regressive beliefs. Their families’ stomachs are dependent on their business. Even women who plant these flowers, pluck them or water them would be menstruating at some point in time, right?” Dipali thinks for a moment and shares, “Younger girls today are more receptive to new knowledge and question their own beliefs. They share how they now do everything at home during their periods. Cooking, entering rooms, filling water and even entering the praying area. Aamhi sandhyakalcha devachan diwa pan lav to (we light the evening lamp for the God too).” She shares how girls who have stricter fathers found it the hardest to push boundaries. “When giving a demo on how to use pads, we found some girls to be sniggering and whispering. When we asked them to share the joke, they said, my mother, tells us that we can’t have children if we use pads.” Dipali realized that families will keep perpetuating these beliefs if no one works with their attitudes and behaviors. “Hence, I decided to interact with parents too. I talk with mothers about safe periods, hygiene and myths around them.”
Dipali is concerned that girls who go to school have access to this empowering information. But what about others who work or who have migrated after marriage? “I try to talk about periods to everyone I can talk to. I can only hope and pray they carry the message ahead. I always urge the girls to talk at home, with their neighbors, friends, people they work with. We need to break this silence together.”
Introspecting, she shares, “I think we need to come up with better ideas than sanitary napkins. They cause pollution and plastic don’t degrade.” Her quest for better alternatives to healthier periods still continues.
Having discarded shame, silence, guilt and secrecy around their periods, young girls can have room for more aspirations in their lives. This is evident with Dipali who runs every day for 6 kilometers, plays short put and skips to get herself in shape for the Union Public Service Commissions Examinations. “Every girl should have the right to exist freely at home and outside and pursue her dreams,” she concludes.
– Written by: Rucha Satoor